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How to Work with the Feds

When the men and women in dark suits come in, work with the people, not the agencies.

September 01, 2004  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

Asking for Help

In 1994, Det. Ricky Smith and Det. Joe Serrano of the Hempstead (N.Y.) Police Department started a war against gangs in the Village of Hempstead. It was a war that escalated with each passing year, and one they knew they could not fight alone.

Help came in the form of a federal task force, one that began with the DEA and then was taken over by the FBI. Ten FBI agents, along with local departments, have now taken over the battle, and Smith and Serrano are no longer alone.

Smith says the joint effort between the feds and the locals has been a major success. Much of that success is because turf wars have not developed and the task force works like a team. Smith says he feels lucky that "the guys we have gotten are very good. They know what they are doing and they don't act like feds. The preconceived concept that is there for feds, well, they are the complete opposite."

Smith believes that true cooperation and the ability to get along, really comes down to the guys who are working the street. "If you get certain people that have a bad personality, who say, 'I'm the star and nobody else counts,' somebody who tries to get the credit all the time, then it doesn't work. Everybody has to work together for the common goal. Nobody [in our task force] cares if they get their name on the paperwork; no one cares if it is my arrest or theirs. The task force is all of us; if we lock someone up, we all do it."

Of course, turf wars are not always about who gets the credit or who is in charge. Once a fish is hooked, somebody has to fry him, and arguments about jurisdiction can sometimes sour relations between cooperating agencies.

Smith says the Long Island gang task force long ago agreed to procedures for determining who prosecutes the bad guy. "We decide back and forth, whether it is the U.S. attorney or the district attorney's office, what charges will get the bigger bang. We want to put the bad people away in jail for a long time. So if they will get more time on the state or the federal charges that's the way it will go."

Lines of Communication

The Long Island gang task force benefits from something that officers and agents say is critical for a successful interagency effort. The men and women involved talk to each other.

Assistant Special Agent in Charge with the DEA Robert Mangiamele is a veteran of both domestic and foreign investigations involving multiple agencies and he says the key to cooperation is open communication.

It's also critical that everyone in the operation understand what he or she can contribute to the effort. "You have to be willing to share your strengths and pick your strengths from other departments," says Mangiamele. "You don't have to like each other, you just have to work with each other," he adds.

Of course, even if the lines of communication are wide open, cooperating agencies can start pulling against each other. Mangiamele says that it's important to realize that every agency has its own objectives and goals. And sometimes those goals can conflict with interagency cooperation.

Mangiamele believes that cooperating agencies must be willing to share information even if it could potentially cause a setback in one of their individual operations. "You have to share and be able to trust," he says. "You have to share information and not be afraid that an investigation that is presently being conducted will get leaked out."

The Laboratory

Few local police agencies have more experience dealing with the feds than the New York City Police Department. Because New York is home to the United Nations and numerous federal agencies are at work in the Big Apple, NYPD officers from almost every rank have had some kind of interaction with federal agents. This makes New York kind of a laboratory of interagency cooperation experiments.

NYPD Assistant Chief Jack McManus has a lot of experience working with feds of all stripes. He was the coordinator of the Republican National Convention, which took over the city late last month and brought numerous dignitaries to town, including the president.

Because New York City has a constant relationship with the federal agencies, McManus believes his task of coordinating the operations of law enforcement at the convention was a little easier than it would be for a cop in another town. But it was still a colossal undertaking involving NYPD officers, FBI agents, Secret Service agents, the U.S. Attorney's office, the FAA, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Capitol Police, and others.

To make the job easier, the NYPD and the Secret Service partnered up and chaired 18 federal subcommittees. Committees included dignitary VIP protection, venue security, air space security, civil disturbance control, prison processing, consequence management, credentialing, crisis management, hazardous materials response, contingency planning, interagency communication, intelligence counterterrorism, legal, public affairs, and training. An executive steering committee that oversaw all these committees was chaired by McManus and the lead Secret Service agent.

The general law enforcement issues were left to the NYPD. They took the lead in crowd control and the Secret Service took the lead inside of Madison Square Garden.

Yet, despite the overwhelming presence of federal agencies on their home turf, McManus said there was no competition between his officers and the feds. "We feel very comfortable that we have the lead," he says. "It has been a very positive experience, and drawing on the preexisting relationships made it easier."

And that, McManus says, is one of the keys to dealing with the feds. "Start relationships in advance, long in advance, before an event necessitates it."
Officers who have worked closely with federal agencies say success or failure hinges on the people involved, not necessarily the bureaucracies. As with most things in law enforcement, when the officers who work on the street level get along, cooperation among agencies is the end result.

"The whole thing comes down to being trustworthy and truthful and one misstep can set you back a long way," says Walsh. "If through some misunderstanding people think that you are not being truthful it takes a lot of time and effort to undo that damage."

Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Police magazine.

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